You’d never know there was a bar back here, if you didn’t already know there was a bar back here.
“They’re going into the dumpster!” Some drunk guy yells, walking by, as I step in through the unmarked entrance in the back.
I can only assume someone designed it this way. A reprieve from the bachelorette parties and craft beer enthusiasts that take over the downtown strip every weekend.
The streets are crowded, but the patio is still. Just a guy smoking a cigarette by the door next to a legal pad where you sign your name, and one other couple at a picnic table with two beer cans in front of them.
If you sit outside you can hear folk-y, acoustic covers of R&B songs, ringing out into the night. It’s almost enjoyable; from that far away.
And if you’ve had a bad enough day that you find yourself there before dark, you can see a group of bats all start to circle near the horizon. A beautiful choreographed routine, ending in an ensemble dive into the chimney of some abandoned building. Eerie and mesmerizing.
I have some crumpled up dollar bills in my pocket and it feels like a real treat.
I use one for the jukebox, flipping through page after page of high school nostalgia, queuing up some old Modest Mouse songs and something sad by Songs: Ohia. The music plays, loud and full, and I feel powerful in my choice. In my control.
Will cracks open a high life before I can even say hi and slides it towards me.
“You missed her, again.” He turns around to toss the cap in the recycling. “She was just here.”
I know exactly who he’s talking about but I act dumb.
The bar is pretty barren but has the best jukebox in the city, one pool table and a computer screen with bar games right next to the cash register. For $1 you can play 3 rounds of an old spot-the-difference game that uses dated photos from Penthouse magazines. Girls with big, 80s hair, in lingerie on motorcycles or sitting in bathtubs. The “differences” were almost never on their bodies, which sat garishly at the forefront of the image, but in the tiles of the tub or the mirrors of the motorcycle. It was a challenge - and someone in this town was really fucking good at it.
“Damn.” I say taking a foamy sip of the beer. “Did she play?”
Will kind of laughs, “Oh yea. Beat her own top score, I think.”
I touch the machine, lighting it up.
“See for yourself.” Will disappears into the back just as the second Modest Mouse song comes on, for no one but me.
I slide a crumpled bill into the machine and press the button for Erotic Photo Hunt.
I can usually make it pretty far, before the timer turns to red and my three precious clues have run dry. I’ve learned that a bra strap is often slipped over a shoulder. I know to count light fixtures, earrings, and fence posts. Tapping the first few, pretty easily and eventually finding the last remaining difference but not without a clench in my chest. The fear that it’s over. That I’ve failed.
I almost beat her once. I got the third highest score, causing a ripple in her clean sweep of the scoreboard. For one night, and one night only it read:
I felt like a real champion, seeing my initials up there with her name. The Michael Jordan of Erotic Photo Hunt. The Tiger Woods of Megatouch.
MIA got her highest score yet, the next day. She played until I was off the map entirely.
“She works nearby, I think,” Will said, when I saw what she had done. He spoke a bit louder, over Bloodbuzz Ohio blaring from the jukebox. “She doesn’t talk much, keeps to herself.”
“Mostly just comes in after her shift, puts some dollars in, and leaves.”
I play a round and lose earlier than I anticipate; thrown off by a fold of fabric under a blonde with the biggest boobs I’ve ever seen. She’s probably my mom’s age now. A thought I quickly push away.
The screen lights up with “game over” and then shows me the new score sitting at the top of the board next to MIA.
“Holy shit,” I say to Will, as he emerges from the back. He raises his eyebrows, wiping the inside of a pint glass with a tattered rag. She’s done it. She’s crossed the million point threshold.
I wonder if this even means anything to her. While I sit here most nights, playing against this elusive stranger, she’s simply trying to be better than she was the night before. ADH, my letters, mean nothing to her. I’m not a threat or even healthy competition. I'm nobody.
I play my next round; a brunette with a pixie cut laying spread eagle by a pool. I spot all five differences, easy. Next, an older woman with an up-do, draped in a leopard print robe in front of a jacuzzi. This one is a bit trickier, but I get the job done.
I watch, nervously, as my points rise. Will I get close to her high score? Make it back onto the scoreboard, tucked somewhere amidst her unrelenting glory?
A group of loud, rowdy friends enter the bar, laughing.
I turn around, briefly wondering if it’s MIA, back for another win. I imagine what she looks like. Have I seen her before, unknowingly? Perhaps we go to the same grocery store on Haywood Road. Get our coffees from the same scowling, young barista. If it was in fact her, would I shake her hand? Step aside and let her play?
The timer runs out and I’ve already used my last clue to find a painfully subtle difference, hidden within some backyard trees. I reflexively let my fist hit the bar. I think next time.
“What is this shit?” One of the newcomers says, gesturing at the air, but referring to the music.
“Hey did y’all sign in,” the man at the door steps inside, but only barely. He leaves his lit cigarette in his mouth, burning orange from under his mustache. “Get back out here.” He points at his yellow legal pad.
It was almost too easy to tell who belonged here and who didn’t. But still, I don’t envy this guy.
The one who hates good music rolls her eyes. “Oh okayyy.” She walks back outside. “Calm down.”
The mustache man doesn’t like this and asks the group where they live. “Tourists aren’t welcome.”
They leave, laughing, likely typing up a yelp review before they’re even out the door.
I have one more round of Erotic Photo Hunt on my dollar before I’m forced to call it quits for the night. I’d face my opponent another evening. Maybe when I’ve gotten more sleep or had less beers. More beers? Rumor has it that crossing your eyes reveals all the idiosyncrasies. I haven’t tried it.
“Does MIA cross her eyes when she plays?” I ask Will, who seems unfazed by the tourist drama. Unfazed by my valiant pursuit and unfazed by the increasingly sad, alienating music I’m letting pour into this bar.
“What? I don’t know.”
I press the button and let a new sultry image wash over me. Full vagina, which is rare. I tap and tap again. Three more. The timer moves from green to yellow and I hold my breath. Tap.
A voice from behind me, soft and confident, as the timer fades to red.
“I think I left my ID.”
Will doesn’t even look up. “Name?”
Tap. I sigh. I’ve made it to the next round.
Emma Ensley wrote Babyland and The Computer Room